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Higgins spending bill tops $1 trillion; 'Nation-building' plan is meant to spur debate

The road ahead of him may be rough, but that's not stopping Rep. Brian Higgins from proposing something unprecedented in this era of $1.3 trillion annual deficits: a $1.25 trillion, five-year plan to rebuild the nation's roads, bridges, railroads, ports and airports.

Armed with research provided by a leading centrist think tank, Higgins later this month will introduce his "Nation Building Here at Home Act," a massive infrastructure spending bill that dwarfs President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package.

The bill's political prospects in this Congress -- which can't even agree on routine long-term highway funding -- are not great, and Higgins is the first to admit that.

But by introducing the bill, Higgins hopes to start a national debate over what he sees as a central economic question: Are we going to let the nation crumble, or are we going to do something about it?

"This isn't a stimulus bill; it's a nation-building bill," Higgins said. "It's rebuilding this country as we've rebuilt other countries -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- in recent years."

Yet Higgins faces a huge handicap in pushing his vision forward: a public that feels burned by President Obama's stimulus bill. A year and a half after that bill passed, more than two-thirds of those surveyed in a Washington Post/ABC News poll termed it "a waste."

It wouldn't have been perceived that way, Higgins said, if it had not been so complicated. More a Band-Aid than a growth hormone, the stimulus bill combined tax cuts and aid to the states with a mere $64 billion in the kind of infrastructure spending Higgins is touting.

"That's what gave stimulus a bad name," Higgins said. "People didn't understand it. They couldn't understand it because [it had] so many component parts to it."

He said his bill is far different -- an easy-to-understand and hugely beneficial idea whose time may come, someday.

Acknowledging the measure's bleak initial political prospects, he nonetheless said: "I think this is a debate that has to start now. And what's initiated today can often influence what we do tomorrow."

Higgins comes to the debate armed with facts.

In Western New York alone, there are 99 structurally deficient bridges -- including one on old Route 219 in Springville that had to be closed this winter for safety reasons, thereby shutting off access to the village's central business district.

Nationwide, there are 69,000 structurally deficient bridges. And a third of the nation's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition -- a fact that could lead to $336 billion in lost economic growth over the next five years, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"A rational political system would embrace a nation-building initiative because the need, the circumstances, are so compelling," Higgins said.

The problem is that Higgins' proposal comes at a time when the federal deficit is overwhelming.

With the deficit topping $1 trillion for four years running and huge shortfalls forecast far into the future, Congress is struggling to pay for even routine spending.

Unable to agree on a long-term plan to fund the nation's highways, Congress has just been extending funding at current levels for a few months at a time.

"Any federal spending increase that gets above a trillion will inevitably fall under very serious suspicion," said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the conservative National Taxpayers Union.

Higgins acknowledges that he's suggesting more deficit spending, but he insists he's pushing a bargain.

For one thing, interest rates are at historic lows.

For another, he contends that the number of jobs the program would create -- 5.5 million, according to the New America Foundation -- would result in so much additional tax revenue and economic growth that the real cost of the infrastructure plan would be only about half the $1.25 trillion set aside in the bill.

Higgins didn't pull that figure out of the air. It's about what the American Society of Civil Engineers said must be set aside to fund the nation's infrastructure needs over the next five years.

What's more, if the nation doesn't spend that money now, the repairs will only get more expensive.

"Deteriorating infrastructure is subject to 'cost acceleration,' where repair or replacement costs grow with time. A project that costs $5 million or $6 million to repair now may cost upwards of $30 million to repair merely two years from now," the New America Foundation said in a report last year called "The Way Forward."

After reading that report, Higgins cold-called one of its co-authors, Robert Hockett of Cornell University, and set about turning a think tank's research into a proposed law.

"He's a very visionary congressman who has the good of upstate New York and the nation at heart," Hockett said of Higgins.